Thoughts on the Heart of the Prayer Service
By Dovid Sears
L’ilui nishmas imi morasi Gittel bas Yitzchak, a”h.
Yahrtzeit: 5 Adar II
Every Shacharis and Minchah where a minyan is present (as well as in the repetition of the Musaf service on Shabbos and Yom Tov), we recite in unison the “Kedushah.” This is the heart of the communal prayer service. Yet I suspect that many of us recite these words with only the most basic intention or understanding of the text. What is the meaning of the Kedushah? Why are these particular verses of such central importance?
Like virtually all facets of Judaism, there are many ways to approach this subject and many divergent meanings that the words imply, as discussed by the various commentators. There is no “one true way” when it comes to such matters; rather each sage presents his truth in his own terms. I would like to explore just a few commentaries here, and especially one that is based on a Breslov teaching. They can all work as kavanos, conceptual frameworks, when we recite the Kedushah in shul, which will make this part of the service all the more meaningful.
First let’s take a look at the text:
We will hallow and adore You—like the sweet words of the assembly of the holy Seraphim, who thrice repeat “holy” unto You, as it is written by Your Prophet:
“And they call to one another and say:
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה' צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ
Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Hashem Tzivaos milo khol ha'aretz kevodo
"Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord of Hosts, the entire world is filled with His Glory" (Isaiah 6:3).[i]
Those facing them offer praise and declare:
בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד ה' מִמְּקוֹמוֹ
Baruch kevod Hashem mim'komo
"Blessed be the glory of G-d from its Place" (Ezekiel 3:12).
And in Your holy scriptures it is written thus:
יִמְלֹךְ ה' לְעוֹלָם אֱלֹהַיִךְ צִיּוֹן לְדֹר וָדֹר הַלְלוּיָהּ
Yimlokh Hashem li-olam Elohayikh Tziyon li-dor va-dor halleluyah.
"The L-rd shall reign forever—Your God, O Zion, from generation to generation.
Praise the L-rd” (Psalms 146:10).
1. View of the Eitz Yosef
The Otzar ha-Tefillah cites the Eitz Yosef of Rabbi Chanokh Zundel ben Yosef of Bialystok as explaining the Kedushah to be a declaration of G-d’s absolute transcendence. The word “kadosh” means separate or removed. Therefore, according to the Eitz Yosef, the threefold repetition of “kadosh” denotes G-d’s transcendence in three categories: a human being's body (guf), the vital force within the body (nefesh), and the soul (neshamah). The Kedushah teaches us that G-d is separate and removed from all three sets of limitations.
The Eitz Yosef comments on the verse “Blessed be the glory of G-d from its Place" that in saying this, we acknowledge that we don’t know G-d’s “place”—for this is beyond the mortal mind. Thus the main idea behind the Kedushah according to this view is that of G-d’s absolute transcendence.
Yet despite this fact, the Creator is not utterly remote and disconnected from us. The conclusion, “The L-rd shall reign forever—Your God, O Zion, from generation to generation,” says the Eitz Yosef, is our request for G-d to reveal his kingship through Israel and through the Holy Temple (may it be rebuilt speedily in our days). This revelation redeems the world entirely (Rabbi Chanokh Zundel cites the Maharal of Prague’s Nesivos Olam as underlying his interpretation.)
2. View of the Yavetz
Rabbi Yaakov Emden, known as the “Yavetz” (the acronym of his name, Yaakov ben Zvi), in his famous Siddur Beis Yaakov, offers a kabbalistic interpretation of the Kedushah. We join the angels in declaring G-d’s holiness that suffuses the array of the Ten Sefiros, through which the world and all it contains came into existence and is governed. The first “kadosh” corresponds to the higher triad: Keser (Crown), Chokhmah (Wisdom), Binah (Understanding). The second “kadosh” corresponds to the middle triad: Chesed (Kindness), Gevurah (Might), Tiferes (Beauty or Harmony). The third “kadosh” corresponds to the lower triad: Netzach (Eternity/ Victory), Hod (Splendor), Yesod (Foundation)—while the phrase “milo khol ha'aretz kevodo / the entire world is filled with His Glory” corresponds to Malkhus (Kingship).
Rather than stressing G-d’s transcendence, the Yavetz sees the Kedushah as instructing us concerning G-d’s immanence within all of His causations or powers, namely the Ten Sefiros. G-d’s holiness is present in all of His doings, right here and now.
With this, we’ll enter the Chassidic realm.
3. View of the Baal ha-Tanya
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad and author of the Tanya, discusses the Kedushah in Likutey Torah, parshas Shelach (as excerpted in the Likutey Torah Siddur, pp. 121-122). The “Alter Rebbe” of Chabad explains that the Torah was given on the three planes of thought, speech and action, each with its own commandments. Yet they are all the same to Hashem. Nor is there any difference between “high” and “low,” for everything in the hierarchy of creation is as naught before the Blessed One, who is without end or beginning. Hashem transcends everything and is holy and removed from all creation—even though he enlivens all and brings everything into existence. We say “kadosh” three times in our desire to “draw down” G-d’s holiness into the three categories of thought, speech and action. Accordingly, the Kedushah is an act of theurgy (or nearly so), a means of channeling the Divine holiness into this world.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman goes on to say that through our engagement in Torah and mitzvos in these three categories, which are “garments” for the soul, we will be able to experience the radiance of the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) and become incorporated into the ultimate reality of the Divine Oneness. This is another powerful kavanah to bear in mind when reciting the Kedushah.
(Reb Noson of Breslov similarly relates the threefold declaration of “kadosh” to thought, speech and action in Likutey Halakhos, Hil. Dayyanim 4:5. He adds that when one sanctifies himself in these three areas, it follows that “milo khol ha'aretz kevodo / the entire world is filled with His Glory”—i.e., the G-dliness hidden within all things will be revealed. Maybe he’s describing the same experience as Rabbi Shneur Zalman in a slightly different way.)
Elsewhere in Likutey Torah, Rabbi Shneur Zalman expounds on “Atah kadosh,” the prayer text which immediately follows the Kedushah and ends with the blessing “Ha-E-l ha-Kadosh (Blessed is the Holy G-d)” He explains that G-d’s Name is exalted alone, beyond all the “worlds” (in the Kabbalah there are four, but I think he means not only the “four worlds” but also the mysterious realities beyond them, which are sometimes described as tzachtzachos, “pure lights”). Only a faint illumination of the Divine Name is drawn upon the earth and heavens. “Atah kadosh”— the Blessed One in His glory and His essence is absolutely transcendent (akin to the view of the Eitz Yosef).
4. View of the Keser Nehorah
Another early Chassidic master, Rabbi Aharon Hakohen of Zhelikhov, in his commentary “Keser Nehorah” (published in the Siddur Tefilah Yesharah, known as the “Berditchover Siddur”), remarks on “Atah kadosh” in terms of yirah (fear, awe, reverence) and ahavah (love). (These are pervasive themes throughout his commentary.)
First, Rabbi Aharon states that “Atah kadosh” alludes to yiras Hashem, fear and awe of G-d. (Rabbi Chanokh Zundel of Bialystok in Anaf Yosef says the same.) This is because these words refer to the Ein Sof, the Infinite One who gives life to all, just as the soul enlivens the body. This is the culmination of the Kedushah, for there is no limit to G-d’s holiness. Hence, “Atah kadosh” should bring one to yiras Hashem, a sense of religious awe.
The next phrase is “vi-shimkha kadosh (and Your Name is holy).” This alludes to the four-letter Divine Name “HaVaYaH” (yud-heh-vav-heh), also known as the Shem ha-Etzem, or Essential Name. Each letter corresponds to one of the “Four Worlds” and animates it:
Yud = Atzilus (World of Emanation)
Heh = Beriah (World of Creation)
Vav = Yetzirah (World of Formation)
Heh = Asiyah (World of Action)
Rabbi Aharon states that this alludes to ahavas Hashem, the love of G-d, which reciprocates G-d’s love of Israel, in that G-d constricted His Infinite Light in these four basic constrictions (tzimtzumim), thus to create this world for our ultimate spiritual benefit (as well as the benefit of all beings).
When used as a kavanah for the Kedushah, Rabbi Aharon’s teaching thus “calibrates” the feelings of ahavah vi-yirah, love and awe of G-d.
5. A Breslov Perspective
Now we’re ready to consider a Breslov teaching, which will give us yet another perspective and another set of kavanos. A novel way of understanding the Kedushah may be constructed on the basis of Likutey Moharan II, 7. (Please note that this is our interpretation of a teaching in Likutey Moharan. The original only discusses the Kedushah of Musaf. But the Rebbe’s words seem to extend to the regular Kedushah, as well, as we will discuss below.)
In section 7 of that lesson, Rebbe Nachman speaks of two hasagos, or perceptions, which are expressed by the angels in the Kedushah of Musaf. One group of angels declares, “M’lo kol ha’aretz kivodo, the entire world is full of His Glory” (as in the regular Kedushah). The Rebbe calls this “M’lo” for short. It is the immanent Divine Presence, the essential unity into which all diversity is subsumed.[ii] However, a second group of angels asks, “Ayeh makom kivodo? Where is the place of His Glory?” The Rebbe calls this “Ayeh” for short. It is the world of mystery, the realm of the unmanifest.
These two hasagos correspond to two followers of a tzaddik: one is his Talmid (disciple), the other is his Ben (son), who is an actual extension of the father. They in turn correspond to two groups of people, the “dorei matah,” “those who dwell below,” and the “dorei ma’alah,” “those who dwell above.”
To recap, the angels express two opposite perceptions:
1. Milo kol ha’aretz kivodo – Immanence. In Torah 7, this is the perception of the Talmid (disciple) and the “dorei matah,” “those who dwell below.”
2. Ayeh – Mah. Transcendence. In Torah 7, this is the perception of the Ben (son) and the “dorei ma’alah,” “those who dwell above.”
Although opposites, these two perceptions are “flip sides of the same coin.” Both are true. And the Rebbe states that they must be combined for a person to experience yirah—which is the prerequisite for serving G-d. One can only experience yirah when there is a distance between self and other, in this case, the worshipper and the object of worship, which is G-d Himself.
The Rebbe adds that the disciple also must possess the perception of the son, and the son must also possess the perception of the disciple. Only then can there be shelimus, or wholeness. And lack of this wholeness can lead to grave error.
In section 9 of the same lesson, the Rebbe he points out that if one is privy only to the perception of “Ayeh” and “Mah” (as are the “son” and “those who dwell above”), he risks succumbing to atheism – since G-d is ultimately a mystery and beyond mortal understanding. And on the other hand, if one is privy only to the perception of “M’lo” (as are the “disciple” and “those who dwell below”), he risks bittul bi-metziyus, self-nullification to the point of being “blinded by the light.”
Therefore, one must combine the two contrary perceptions to create yirah. And in that “margin,” one can serve G-d, and thus fulfill the purpose of creation.
Both opposites are suggested in each of the main declarations of the regular Kedushah, as well. We say “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh…” indicating G-d’s transcendence, but in the same breath, “m’lo kol ha’aretz kivodo,” indicating G-d’s immanence.[iii] This may be understood as a perception mi-le-ma’alah le-matah, from above to below.
The next declaration is “Baruch kevod Hashem mimkomo” The kavod Hashem or Divine Glory denotes G-d’s immanence, while “mimkomo,” “His Place,” denotes G-d’s transcendence.[iv] Thus, this may be understood as a perception mi-le-matah le-ma’alah, from below to above. In each verse, the two perceptions are combined. According to Breslov (if our understanding is correct), this is the lesson of the Kedushah.
[i] The Targum on Isaiah 6:3 interprets the threefold “kadosh” to mean that the Blessed One is holy above, in the highest heavens; holy on earth; and holy for all eternity. Rashi subscribes to this interpretation, as well (ad loc.).
[ii] In Likutey Moharan I, 33 (sec. 2), Rebbe Nachman cites this verse from Isaiah to support the idea of G-d’s immanence: “M’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo,” the entire world is full of His Glory. He also quotes the Tikuney Zohar (Tikkun 57, 91b): “les asar panui minei, no place is devoid of Him”—for G-d fills all worlds (memale kol almin) and encompasses all worlds (sovev kol almin) (Zohar III, 225a).
[iii] Reb Noson expounds on Isaiah 6:3 that this declaration of G-d’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence represents the perfection of G-d’s sovereignty (malkhus), in fulfillment of the verse, “Do I not fill the heavens [the transcendent] and the earth [the immanent]? says G-d” (Jeremiah 23:24) (Likutey Halakhos, Rosh Chodesh 4:3).
[iv] In Likutey Moharan I, 24 (sec. 7), Rebbe Nachman cites “Boruch kevod Hashem mimkomo,” Ezekiel 3:12, to describe the baal hasagah’s or mystic’s spiritual ascent to Keser (Crown), the highest of the Ten Sefiros and the domain of pure potential in creation. Thus, “Keser,” the transcendent level, may be called “G-d’s Place.”